A Japanese poet making it in America in the first decade of the 20th cen


Amy Sueyoshi, the Associate Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies of San Francisco State University, has read extant correspondence between Japanese writer Noguchi Yone (to retain Japanese word order for names) [1875-1947] and three American “intimates” in Queer Compulsions (published in 2012 by the University of Hawai’i Press). The “queer” in the title primarily refers to the passionate relationship with writer Charles Warren Stoddard [1843-1909]), though Noguchi’s relationships with two white American women were “queer” in the sense of unusual. He was engaged to reporter (later historian) Ethel Armes, whose primary romantic orientation was toward other women, for a time, while maintaining passionate friendship (or more) with Stoddard, and he sired a son (sculptor Noguchi Osamu) on (on more than with) copyeditor Léonie Gilmour.

Noguchi’s most passionate correspondence was with Stoddard, with whom Noguchi also spent the most time. The least passionate correspondence, one that was almost all business (the business of editing and selling his writings) was with Gilmour, with whom he did not live, even when she took their son to Japan for about a decade—by which time he had a Japanese wife and was siring three more offspring.

The existence of Noguchi Osamu is pretty solid proof that Yone had sex with Léonie. It seems that Ethel Armes primarily loved women and nothing Sueyoshi quotes suggests that she and Yone copulated.

There is also not explicit evidence that Yone and Stoddard had sex, though when Yone stayed in D.C. in Stoddard’s Bungalow, “they spent afternoons dozing comfortably together in a single arm chair. In the evenings they slept in the same bed.” Both wrote about loving the other and long kisses. The epistles seethe with homoeroticism, but sexual consummation was not mentioned. (Of course, when it was most likely to occur, when they were sharing a bed, they were not writing letter to each other.)


(Stoddard in 1908)

Stoddard was frustrated that a live-in white protégé was slipping from his grasp. His writings about Native Hawaiians he loved while in the Islands also stop short of documenting genital contact. I think that “kissing” may have been a euphemism. (Although making many surmises, Sueyoshi does not even opine about sexual consummation, so this is not her interpretation of what when on in the soap opera about which she wrote.) I wonder what Noguchi meant by “boundless” in sending Stoddard “boundless love and kisses” (in 1898). And the kinship lexicon of “daddy” and “boy” they employed has certainly not precluded sex in homosexual relationships a century later.

Sueyoshi quotes John Crowley’s characterization of Stoddard’s affairs as “pedophilic.” Noguchi Yone was not a child when he went to America, so this relationship was “androphilic.” The age discrepancy was also mapped on some gender discrepancy between the bearded older man, and the smooth-skinned Noguchi who presented himself as a “most feminine dove” to the connoisseur of smooth brown-skinned young males. Noguchi ‘s simultaneous courtships of white women suggested both plenty of testosterone and more than a little cunning about keeping each of the three in the dark about his other intimate engagements.


Though Noguchi was Japanese and published extensively in Japanese as well as in English, I don’t recall anything Sueyoshi quoted from Noguchi in Japanese. (I don’t know how much of his correspondence in Japanese is extant, and in the epilogue she cites some Japanese publications about Noguchi.) She lifts a word, a phrase, or (rarely) a whole sentence from correspondence in English, combining multiple sources in a single endnote, so it is not obvious which quotation is from which source.

I also find frustrating her failure to consider Noguchi’s erotic objectification of white people. She says that Stoddard “pursued objects rather than relationships with Japanese men” (p. 139), though (1) Stoddard clearly pursued an ongoing relationship with Noguchi, (2) pursued intimacy not just sexual use of his bed partners, and (3) no other Japanese man in Stoddard’s retinue is mentioned. Moreover sexual objectification in inter-racial relationships runs in both directions. (And the “compulsions” in the title is more misleading than “queer” with no one identifying his or her amorous inclinations as “queer.” Even if, as she says, she is writing about desires rather than identities, a reader of her book comes away not knowing what Noguchi’s desired sexually, or what Stoddard or Armes desired beyond platonic friendship.)

We already knew that strong homoerotic bonds (female-female, as well as male-male, as in “Boston marriages”) were common in the late 19th century and that a rather extravagant language of “love” occurred in 19th-century epistles. That an Asian (actually, West Pacific) man was involved in such a bond is interesting, and the daring in juggling three intimacies by one Japanese sojourner in the US and the UK makes for an interesting soap opera, but this case does little to illuminate interracial erotic bonds in the first decade of the twentieth century (in the US, let alone in Japan). Sueyoshi does show that Noguchi Yone’s initial resistance to orientalist clichés (in an era of Japonisme) eventually gave way to trying to exploit them for economic gains (i.e., for selling his writings).

BTW, Sueyoshi makes no claims for the merits of Noguchi’s large body of work, though noting that it went out of fashion long ago. (Not that anyone today reads Noguchi’s first American patron, Joaquin Miller, either. And readers of Stoddard are also rare.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


Endô exploring reputation-sullying


I remain ambivalent about the fiction of the very Roman Catholic writer  Endô Shusako (1923-96), though for me his penultimate novel, Scandal (1986), was a page-turner. Its primary theme is about an aging Japanese Catholic novelist, Suguro (who, like Endô, had written a biographical novel about Jesus, and whose next novel will be entitled “Scandal”) who is plagued by a seeming doppelgânger who regularly haunts peep shows and S&M parties I the Shinjuku (red-light) district of Tokyo.

Suguro has a reputation for rectitude, with a long-established companionate marriage, one of “poised tranquility” with a dutiful wife who lately is more and more hampered by arthritis. This leads to hiring a junior-high-school girl, Mitsu, to clean the separate apartment where he writes. This seems a likely source of scandal, but isn’t.


More of one is his increasing intimate relationship with a widow, Mrs. Naruse, who is a volunteer in the pediatric ward of a local hospital. Mrs. Naruse is a confidant of street-sketching portraitist, Motoko, whose current exhibit includes a portrait of a very debauched man everyone sees as Suguro, though he is sure he never posed for it.

Motoko is a suicidal masochist, and Mrs. Naruse has some understanding of sadism by way of her dead husband’s WWII atrocities (a matter very rarely taken up in Japanese fiction with the notable exception of Endô’s own The Sea and Poison), the recounting of which she found arousing. So far as I can tell, Mrs. Naruse has no personal experience of s&m scenarios and is regarded as something of a saint at the hospital where she cares for sick children.

A journalist named Kobari is eager to sully Suguro’s reputation, ferreting out Motoko and accounts of the debauches of his look-alike. Suguro is seen around Shinjuku, as he tries to find out about Motoko and his secret self—or to prove that his doppelgänger is another person so he can clear his name. Suguro himself comes to wonder if there is a sordid second self playing with debauchery, and only imagining seeing someone who looks like himself smirking at him in a public lecture. He enjoys the good repute in which he is widely held and dismayed by the harassment of Kobari, the would-be iconoclast bent on destroying his reputation (but ready to be bought out of publishing the dirt he gathers).

I would have preferred greater clarity about whether the second Suguro is a hallucination (heautoscopy), a real second person, or Mr. Hyde to Suguro’s Dr. Jekyll. So would Suguro, who is ready to doubt his sanctity and suspect that he could be a voyeur. That aspect is very Tanizaki-like (Endô won the second Tanizaki Prize, btw, for The Silence, recently filmed by Martin Scorsese) as is the keeping of the wife in ignorance about socially reprehensible but personally fascinating obsessions and vices. In considering that he might be evil, not just mired in sin, Suguro (Endô) surpasses Tanizaki’s (characters’) indulging in and scandalized by their various perversions. (Suguro explains:  “My] pen somehow persisted in depicting the black, dark, ugly realms within [my] characters. As a novelist [I] could not bring [myself] to skit over or ignore any of the components of a human being….  [I have] the notion that a true religion should be able to respond to the dark melodies, the faulty and hideous sounds that echo from the hearts of men.” and “I’m a novelist. A novelist has to dirty his hands in the deepest recesses of the human heart. I have to thrust my hand in, even if I find something there that God could never bless.”

Shusaku Endo 2.jpg

Endô does not seem to me particularly adept at writing thrillers, but was certainly adept at writing crises of faith, iinvolving doubts about what is real. At least in the translation by his major American advocate Van C. Gessel, he writes better sentences than Graham Greene (Endô was repeatedly called “the Japanese Graham Greene” and “the Asian Graham Greene” and shared Greene’s sense of existential guilt and lack of acceptance of grace; now he seems to be a writer who, along with Abe Kobo, paved the way for Murakami Haruki).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Also see my reivews of Endô’s final novel Deep River, Van Gessel’s sections of Five by Endô and Van Gessel’s analysis of Endô and some other “third generation” Japanese writers, The Sting of Life.

Mishima as a 1960 pop gangster



I watched in Masumura Yasuzo’s relatively garish yakuza film “Karakkaze yaro” (“Blown by the wind,” though titled Afraid to die” in English) to look at Mishima Yukio ca. 1960. The title comes from a  prison guard’s question; Takeo is not afraid is less eager than Mishima himself was). The PFA screening  I saw was part of a Masumura series, but I think that more of the capacity audience was drawn by Mishima rather than by Masumura (of whom, I confess, I’d never heard before this series).

afraid3 (1).jpg

Even though I was busy scanning Mishima’s face and body (and Shimura Takashi’s tattoos) the film dragged a bit and seemed formulaic. I didn’t think that Mishima’s body was (yet) that built up. His biceps were hard, but his pecs were then less developed (not just in comparison to today’s Nautilusized bodies, but to later pictures of him). His legs (only partially shown) appeared a bit skinny (body builders focus above the waist). He had thick armpit hair and eyebrows and a clump of cleavage hair. Closely cropped hair, long face, long ears, pouty lower lip, strong chin—almost simian-looking, especially when he hunched his shoulders. Long sideburns (for 1960), a black leather jacket in most scenes, black shirts in all (looking quite dapper with a white jacket in the train station finale).

Masumura’s visual sense was very pop (i.e., colorful and humorous, especially the jack-in-the-box gangs at a crucial confab). Takeo (Mishima) and Yoshie (Ayako Wakao) ride a carousel, kidnap a child, and have some rough sex (the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or to cringe at him smacking her around and thereby inspiring her determination to bear his child).


I wanted to laugh at the death scene on an escalator. Chuck Stephens described Masumura’s films as “seriously berserk and sumptuously nihilistic.” This fits the last scene particularly well. Takeo knows he’s doomed (which can be taken for nihilism, but Yoshie is extremely resilient (and just as stubborn). The major question is whether Mishima knew he was posturing. I’m pretty sure that Masumura did.

Charles Boyer was more expressive (not to mention more sympathetic) as a doomed gangster (Pepe le Moko) in “Algiers.” What he longs for (freedom, specifically, Paris) is very clear. Mishima was less affectless than Alain Delon in Melville’s “Le samourai,” but what did either character yearn for? That the cool, elegant, very beautiful Heddy Lamar would respond to Boyer seems natural. She does not want to domesticate him, as the less glamorous concession-stand operator Ayako Wakao does Mishima. Both break through. Earlier in the filme, Takeo tells his mistress that men love only themselves, women are for wasting time with. His relenting for the pregnant Yoshie leads to his destruction, just as Pepe’s pursuit of the visitor leads to his (in both cases, others are plotting the destruction, but the proximate cause is an Eve in both instances, verdad?)


©1997, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Mishima melodrama about political shenanigans



Mishima Yukio (1925-70) wrote “Rokumeikan” in 1956, on a commission from the Bungaku-za (Literary Theater) for the troupe’s twentieth anniversary. Mishima said that he wrote the play” to showcase actors and acting.” The Rokumeikan ( “Deer Cry Pavilion” in Japanese) was built in Tokyo and then used by the Japanese government from 1883 to 1893. The Rokumeikan was an architectural symbol of the Meiji government policy popularly known as bunmei kaika, “civilization and enlightenment“ a westernization conception of modernization. Rokumeikan was a British-designed Renaissance-style social center built as place where the Japanese upper classes entertained foreign dignitaries. It was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1893, but continued to be used as a social club for Japan’s aristocracy until 1933.


The ball the night of 3 November 1886, on which Mishima based this play, was attended by eventeen hundred guests, hosted by the foreign minister Count Inoue Kaoru (1835-1915) and his wife, Sato. MIshima stipulated that “during the ball on the Emperor’s Birthday, on November 3 of the nineteenth year of Meiji, nothing remotely resembling the incident seen here [in the play] happened.”

The play opens in the tearoom at the residence of the Prime Minister, Count Kageyama. At eleven AM 3 November 1886, the Meiji Emperor’s birthday. Every year it is the occasion for Count Kageyama to host a ball at at Rokumeikan, which Count Kageyama’s wife, Asako never attends. Though other members of the elite wear Western clothes, Asako never does. After Asako comes in, she is involved in a discussion with the Marchioness Daitokuji Sueko about the latter’s daughter Akiko’s romance with Kiyohara Hisao, the (adopted) son of the opposition (Jiyû Party) leader Kiyohara Einosuke.

Unknown to the others, Hisao’s biological mother is Asako. Hisao shows up and tells Asako about his grudge against his father and ongoing dismay at not knowing who his (biological) mother is, She decides to tell him and he confides his plans to assassinate his father that evening at the ball.

The second act takes place two hours later. Asako has asked Einosuke, whom she has not seen in twenty years, to come and see her (in the same room as the first act’s setting). He tells her that though he has neglected their son, he loves him. Asako asks him not to go to the ball, without telling him why. Einosuke refuses.

Einosuke slips away when Count Kageyama returns home. Asako overhears Einosuke’s conniving to have Hisao slay Einosuke, masking the politically motivated assassination as a family quarrel.

Asako enters and tells her husband that the opposition party’s intrusion at the ball will not occur… and that she will go to the ball, and in western dress. She refuses to explain why she is breaking from her pattern.

The third act occurs in the Rokumeikan Grand Ballroom shortly before sunset, as the preparations for the ball are in process. Akiko persuades Hisao not to kill his father. A subsequent conversation between the count and Hisao ends in Count Kageyama giving Hisao a pistol.


The final act takes place around 9PM. Asako learns that Einosuke’s followers — or at least young men disguised as Liberal Party disrupters — have arrived. This makes Hisao believe that his father has gone back on his word (about the planned disruption). Two shots ring out—offstage. The final father-son conversation also occurs offstage, though when she learns that her husband had staged the invasion of the ball by his opponents, she tells him she is leaving him and taking up (again) with Einosuke. The play ends with another offstage gunshot, this one not explicated.

As my summary of the plot shows, the play is very melodramatic. It also show the veniality and hypocrisy of the political establishment (Count Kageyama) … and the despairing idealism of youth (Hisao).

Asako is like many a self-sacrificing Kabuki character, hiding her feelings (not least from her husband, and, until act two, her son), though they are quite clear to the audience. The movements of the characters are also tightly choreographed, as in Kabuki.

I don’t really see why the conflicts are sited in the Rokumeikan: the meeting/melding of East and West for which the place was built are peripheral and no foreign (i.e., non-Japanese) character matters at all to the plot. A ball crowd just makes staging more difficult (in contrast to “My Friend Hitler” with four characters and a simple, single set). Maybe the glamor of the setting appeals to Japanese audiences (along with nostalgia for the first flushes of modernity, as Donald Keene suggested). “Rokumeikan” is the Mishima play most frequently mounted in Japan, reputedly (“Hitler” elsewhere).

The play was also the basis for a 2010 opera.

And what happened to Akiko?


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Talky Mishima play about Hitler’s consolidation of power


(1955 public domain photo of Mishima)


Like the other Mishima Yukio  ((the pen name Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) plays I know (and unlike the one movie he directed, Patriotism), “My Friend Hitler” (1968) is a talkathon with the only action occurring offstage.* In this instance the action during “The Night of the Long Lives” (30 June-1 July 1934) and is not even reported in much detail.

Beyond being a provocation, the title is odd in that both the old friends, Gregor Strasser (1892-1934) and Ernst Röhm (1887-1934) address the führer as “Adolf,” not as “Hitler” or “Chancellor.” Strasser was something of the leader of a left opposition within the National Socialist Party until being forced to esign from his party offices on 8 December 1932 (and from his seat in the Reichstag in March 1933). If Strasser was the “socialist” in National Socialism, Röhn was an ultranationalist, and an opposition within the National Socialist Party with a large power base of his own developing, the Sturmabteilung (SA, storm troppers). The SA thugs were anathema to the regular German military, the Reichwehr, which Röhm sought to take control of. Both had participated in the November 1923 “beer hall putsch” in Munich, the seminal event in the early history of Hitler and the Nazis.


(Hitler and Röhm  in 1933)

In the play, Strasser and Röhm and industrialist Gustav Krupp (1870-1950) are waiting for audiences with Hitler, who is out on the balcony protruding from the room that is the play’s sole set ranting away. He reassures each of them in turn.


(Hitler and Strasser)

Strasser then pleas with Rôhm to depose Hitler who will otherwise break and/or kill them in consolidating his power within the party (with Göring and Himmler). Röhm was widely known to be homosexual, and Mishima portrays him as in love with (or at least besotted by) Hitler. Mishima’s Hitler is aware of and uses that to set up the purge of right opposition and destruction of the SA.

Mishima regarded Hitler as a genius as a politician (though not as a military strategist). The play has been seen by some as pro-fascist, but others as anti-fascist. As someone with his own neo-fascist militia and nationalist fantasies, Mishima was heading for a failed putsch and self-destruction of his own, though there is nothing in the play that seems directly related to Japan of 1968, 1938, or any other time.

Having only four performers and a minimal single set, the play appeals to low-budget stage producers, and is probably the Mishima play most often stage in English. It is something of a companion piece to “Madame de Sade,” another play with historically real characters, in that instance all women. Mishima suggested that both plays with single-sex casts are about “the impossibility of eroticism.” I don’t know what this means, though both portray high costs of erotic fantasies. The play ends with Krupp congratulating Adolf (he also first-names him) for having cut down both the left and the right (within the party) and Hitler exiting, saying “Yes, government must take the middle road” — not where most of us would see the thousand-year Reich as having proceeded after 1934.

  • Donald Keene recalled, “Mishima was fascinated by the theatre of Racine and wanted to explore the idea of the long speech, where the off-stage action is hinted at or described by another person.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


Ivan Morris’s anthology of Japanese short fiction


Ivan Morris’s (1962) collection of modern (up to Mishima) Japanese stories includes one (“The moon on the water”) by Kawabata that I can appreciate, and a very funny one by Dazai about an unwelcome visitor drinking all his whiskey (“The Courtesy Call”), a Wildean early Tanizaki story (“Tattooer” who is erotically enslaved by a beautiful woman whose foot [quel surprise!] first drew his attention), a Buddhist tale of lust and detachment by Mishima (“The priest and his love”) and, my favorite, Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s (also Wildean) tale of a quest to see a painting, “Autumn mountain,” which may have been imagined rather than seen. (I had not realized that Tanizaki was born before Akutagawa.) Also a satire of uniformed Japanese authoritarians (the driver of the passive passengers in “The charcoal bus”) by Dazai’s master, Ibuse Masuji (though the story dates from 1952, four years after Dazai killed himself).

Morris (1925-76) was Donald Keene’s colleague at Columbia, the other scholar who brought Japanese literature (Tales of Genij, The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon and modern work), including Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Shōhei’s Fires on the Plain, to English-reading audiences in general and me in particular. Morris (1925-1976) seems to me more sociological (not least in the analysis of Heian society, The World of the Shining Prince), Keene (born in 1922 and still going strong) more of an aesthete, and Morris seemed to value comedy more than Keene.

I wonder about Morris’s statement “The confessional, diary type of writing, in which everything is seen through the eyes of one lone sensitive individual, continues to be far more popular in Japan than in the West” (23), however. I thought “confession” was a genre pioneered in the west (Augustine, Cellini, Casanova, Rousseau…) Perhaps the Japanese were ahead of the development of American fiction (and now, even when writing about Others). The themes and, certainly, the preferred metaphors and images in these stories seems very Japanese to me. Ibusé’s is the only story I can imagine being written about some place other than Japan (or, in a few cases, China).

©1996, 2017, Stephen O. Murray



“An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps”


To make “An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps” (2009), a half century after Swiss-German-Jewish immigrant photographer Robert Frank (born in Zurich in 1924) took to the road for two years on a Guggenheim fellowship, Philippe Seclier set out to follow Frank’s itinerary and try to find people and places that had made it into Frank’s (1958 in French, 1959 in English) book The Americans. Frank took 28,000 photographs, of which the book reproduced only 83.

In the documentary some people page through the book, but Seclier only shows trying to find the subjects of a handful of the photos. He finds New Orleans trolleys the window in Butte, Montana from which Frank shot the streets and rooftops of a more prosperous mining town), and the location of a shot on Belle Island in the Detroit River without the black and white people who were the point of Frank’s shot. He also finds a black Alabama woman whom Frank shot on the back of a motorcycle and a boy who was in the foreground of a 4th of July celebration in upstate New York (with a very large flag taking up most of the visual field). Both identify themselves in the photos, but neither remembers the photographer or being photographed.

Somewhat more interesting than the failures to connect with the objects of the 1950s photos are some reminiscences of the French and the American publishers (Barney Rossiter of the Evergreen Review and Grove Press was the American one, Robert Delpire the French one), Frank’s New York printer, and a friend in whose darkroom in Orinda (a suburb of San Francisco just east of the coastal mountains) Frank made the first prints of the film he had shot crossing the country. These interview segments are OK. More interesting it the tale of Frank’s youth in Switzerland surrounded by the Third Reich and coming to the US in 1947, where he worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion photographer for a time. After some time in Paris, he returned and did freelance photography published in glossy magazines of the early 1950s.

Edward Streichen and Walker Evans supported his Guggenheim application. The latter wrote a preface for the first (French) edition. The newly famous Jack Kerouac wrote one for the Grove Press American edition. Allen Ginsberg had also befriended Frank, and Frank was best known to me for filming the Beat writers in “Pull My Daisy” and the Rolling Stones in “Cocksucker Blues.” (Frank’s film-making career, and indeed anything beyond the publication of The Americans is unmentioned in the documentary and there is no mention of any attempt to hear from Frank himself.

I know that some criticized blurriness in some of the images in the book, so am somewhat hesitant to criticize the blurriness of many “on the road” shots in the movie. I imagine that Seclier, who credits himself with photographing and driving, had some arty intent, though the blurriness may derive from filming and driving at the same time.

I am not convinced that the book is as important or as seminal as Seclier believes. For the seminal, remember that Frank was supported by Walker Evans, whose photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men documented poverty and racism in the American South. Also dating back to the 1930s, were the powerful images shot by Dorothea Lange (and even Ansel Adams’s documentary photographs of the Manzanar concentration camp for West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II). And Frank’s photographs are not as well known as those of Diane Arbus (with Frank and Saul Leiter, Frank is sometimes identified as a photographic “New York School” paralleling the “New York School” of poets—with whom Frank was not associated).

Mention is made at the attacks on the book for the definite article (the) in the title, a claim for universality or representativeness that was not made in the first two publications of Frank’s photos from on the road.

For the half-century anniversary of the publication of the book, an exhibition was mounted by the National Gallery in DC, and traveled here (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and onto China. The documentary ends with a woman walking through the exhibit in Northern China (with a glimpse at the map indicating places where photos in the show and book were shot). She does not say anything about her impressions of the photos.

The documentary might stimulate some viewers (even those who shut off the DVD long before its end, though that is never more than an hour away) to look at Frank’s book, but it is a remarkably dull movie. Painter Ed Ruscha makes some apposite remarks, but Seclier’s meditations are exceptionally banal. For sue, Seclier is not a new Tocqueville!


©2013, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Edward Weston’s color photographs


For me Edward Weston (1886-1958) was the photographer most responsible for photography coming to be considered a fine art (rather than a craft). He was one of the founders of the f64 group, championing ultra-sharp images rather than the soft-focus impressionism of some earlier art photographers (f64 was the smallest aperture on the bulky cameras he and Ansel Adams and others used, circa 1932).

Weston’s most famous images are quasi-abstract peppers and artichokes, female nudes (often body parts rather than the whole body); shells, pebbles, and rocks on the northern California coast (Point Lobos, in particular). That he wrote interestingly (I read his Daybooks at an impressionable age) and spent several years (1923-26) among the post-revolutionary Mexican avant-garde increased his appeal for me. He was a theorist about composition and photographic art (who definitely practiced what he preached).

The bulk of Weston’s work—and all of that included in his selection of his legacy, 800 images known as “the project”—were in black-and-white. I knew that he took some color photographs during the late-1940s, having seen some in an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of his Carmel-area photographs. The Center for Creative Photography (at an alma mater of mine, the University of Arizona) houses a Weston archive and put on a show of his photographs in color in 1996.

Color Photography is the catalog from that show, also including an essay “Color as Form” that Weston wrote, comments by Nancy Newhall from 1953 on Weston’s color photography, and a substantial introduction by Terence Pitts that includes reproductions of the ads Kodak ran using Weston color photos to publicize Kodachrome (aka, ektachrome) in 1947-48.

Dr. George L. Waters, Jr., of the Kodak advertising department invited Weston, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Ansel Adams to try the new color film stock and offered the then lordly sum of $250 per image (from transparencies) for resulting photos, Weston, who was very depressed about divorce and the onset of Parkinson’s disease, surprised himself by taking to what he considered the new medium and to thinking in color.

In 1947 fellow f64-founder Willard van Dyke made a documentary about Weston, and Weston decided to return to photograph places in the Big Sur area, Death Valley, and Lake Tenaya that he had made black-and-white photographs before—so as not to repeat himself.


The results, particularly the pastel buildings of Cannery Row in Monterey (doubled by reflection) met with some skepticism from purists. It and a chambered nautilus on pebbles (the cover photo) are the only ones that seem to me to have vivid color. By artificial light, I didn’t immediately see the color(s) in some of the others (the book includes face-to-face color/black-and-white images)—particularly a cypress root close-up. Some of those with skies look too cobalt-blue to me and others emphasize black shadows on light rock (I can see some brown in the shot of Death Valley #14, but it still seems a black-and-white photo too.) Color is not desaturated in some other Death Valley photos, and the severity and control of compositions of those that use more of the color palette are consonant with the severity and control of Weston’s black-and-white photos. (This extends to the photographs with people, including his son Cole against an automobile body.)

By 1948, Weston’s Parkinson’s disease had advanced so much that he did not take any more photographs—color or black-and-white. Had he been able to, it seems likely he would have experimented more, though no one can know in what directions he might have taken color photography.

One of my favorites (#35) is a photo across some hills above the Big Sur coast with the Pacific Ocean reflecting light in the top half of the image. The image was used in a Kodak ad—reversed and printed in warmer (yellower) color with increased brightness. I didn’t realize they were the same image at first, though am not surprised that his print was more austere.

Although Weston’s brief exploration of color film has not been as influential as his earlier black-and-white work, he made some striking images. The book puts them in biographical and commercial context, including his own articulate reflections on the difference between black-and-white and color art photography. I like the subject matter as well as the technique and am pleased to have the book (the dimensions of which are 10.2″ x 9.5″).


©2007, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ric Burns’s Ansel Adams documentary


I’ve seen film documentaries of a number of photographers from the heroic age (between the world wars), including Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-BressonDorothea Lange, and Rondal Partridge. The 2002 “American Masters” one about Ansel Adams (1902-84), directed by Ric Burns, is the most revealing one, detailing an unusual childhood on the northwestern edge of the San Francisco peninsula, being injured in the 1906 earthquake, being what was not yet labeled “hyperactive,” spending a year at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, and throwing himself into playing the piano before taking up photography. His courtship was prolonged and the documentary delves into a major marital crisis involving a darkroom assistant. And lots of self-doubts, ending in years in which he stopped taking photographs, but was a Sierra Club activist, especially involved in getting King’s Canyon set aside as a National Park.

There is footage of him playing the piano. I recall only one video interview of him, though there are ones of his son and daughter (and Carl Pope, longtime head of the Sierra Club).

There are also a lot of striking Adams photographs. My unease is that a whole photograph is rarely on display. The Burns brothers (Ken and Ric) style of panning in and out and back and forth means that the composition Adams made (often as much in the darkroom as choosing a shot) are pretty much not available in the documentary. (I have seen prints on museum and other walls, and reproductions in books, but…).

The narration is pessimistic about the preservation of wilderness. Some of the access to the Yosemite Valley has been rolled back and I think there are still remote, quite wild areas in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks (if not in Sequoia).


The standard Burns mix of interviews and actors reading letters (plus some home movies) also typifies this documentary. With even less criticism by anyone of the person considered (there is mention of criticisms of Adams and Weston during the Depression for not making socially “relevant” photos, and, oddly, no mention of the photographs Adams took of the Japanese-American concentration camp a Manzanar, east of Mount Whitney, that Adams took).


(1947 photograph of Adams, probably taken by J. Malcolm Greany that first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook and is in the public domain)

Also, other than chronicling encouragement from Alfred Stieglitz, there is little about other photographers (mention of advice from Strand and the apolitical rap made of Weston and Adams), though Adams was involved (founded) a group, f64 (named for sharp focus).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Northern California photographer Rondal Partridge

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Onstage (at a 2008 showing of his daughter’s documentary about Dorothea Lange), Rondal Partridge [1917-2015] showed an impatience with cant and showed no inhibitions about saying what he thought, even if it undercut what his daughters had said. He firmly maintained that photography is documentation, not art, though explaining that this certainly did not mean photographs could not be beautiful.

At the time, I thought he was presenting his own view. Having looked through his daughter Elizabeth’s selection of more than a hundred of his photographs taken across the span of about seventy years (Quizzical Eye, 2003), I’ve decided that he must have been presenting Lange’s position.


He accompanied Lange on expeditions photographing migrant workers during the Great Depression and photographed her and Ansel Adams (with whom he was apprenticed before Lange; both were friends of his parents Mills College art professor Roi Partridge and photographer Imogen Cunningham). In the Q&A Rondal said that he was gravitating to the view that Adams was a “pictorialist with sharp edges” (the sharpness of images was central to the f.64 group centered on Adams).

Be that as it may, many of the landscapes included in the book look like Adams’s photograph, with the very notable exception of one of Half Dome in Yosemite (the prototypical subject of Adams photographs) shot across an overflowing parking lot on the Yosemite Valley floor.

One Rondal Partridge leitmotif is automobiles blighting California, and he has very deliberately documented pollution as well as documenting the migrants of the Depression and spending the World War II years as a Navy documentary photographer.

I like his pictures of artists, both candid ones and posed ones. — and plate 57 which was a “hold that position” one of Lange. My favorite is a mid-1950s portrait of Odetta with her head rested on her guitar and looking dreamily off (plate 36).

Partridge’s work also includes some self-portraits that I would call “surrealistic” and some as far from “documentation” as the experiments of, say, Man Ray. The photos of flea market displays with the photographer’s shadow and the dead birds on a plat with onions or in a cordial glass (plates 92-93) are somewhere between surrealism and abstraction, Partridge’s still-lives strike me as being as composed as those of Edward Weston (whom Partridge also knew from childhood on). And the strikingly composed shots of buildings (especially plates 52-55) are surely works of art (even if also of “documentation”). The buildings are in sharp focus (though the distant hills, etc. are not).

In addition to the splendid printing of Partridge photographs, there are essays by his daughter Elizabeth and by Dorothea Lange’s son Daniel Dixon that bear on living with/around Partridge’s passion for photography, and a fine overview of Rondal Partridge’s anti-careerist trajectory as a photographer by photography historian Sally Stein.


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(Partridge’s most famous image, Yosemite’s Half Dome across a parking lot in 2965)

Both pictures and text are engaging and unpretentious. Now I want to see Meg Partridge’s documentary films about her father and her paternal grandmother!


©2008, 2016, Stephen O. Murray